Docked and loaded

The Nintendo Switch arrives in March next year but we still know relatively little about the console, at least from an official perspective. Leaks relating to the machine's power have been coming thick and fast however, and Eurogamer has pulled together a report which cites numerous development sources and finally gives us a solid picture of just how powerful the hybrid device is in its docked and undocked forms.

Eurogamer's analysis takes a recent Venturebeat story regarding the Switch's power in comparison to rival consoles as its jumping off point; while many hoped that it would utilize Nvidia's new Pascal tech, it would appear that Nintendo is instead using Tegra X1 and a GPU based on second-generation "Maxwell" technology. While this is all largely stuff that has been previously reported on, the big revelation from this new report is how the console behaves when it's away from its dock.

Rather than paraphrase Eurogamer, we'll quote the really interesting bit:

Clock-speeds are a crucial piece of information required to get some idea of Switch's capabilities beyond the physical make-up of the Tegra processor. As many have speculated, the new Nintendo hardware does indeed feature two performance configurations - and the console is categorically not as capable in mobile form, compared to its prowess when docked and attached to an HDTV. And we can confirm that there is no second GPU or additional hardware in the dock itself regardless of the intriguing patents that Nintendo has filed suggesting that there might be. With battery life and power throughput no longer an issue, the docked Switch simply allows the GPU to run much faster. And to put it simply, there is a night and day difference here.

Where Switch remains consistent is in CPU power - the cores run at 1020MHz regardless of whether the machine is docked or undocked. This ensures that running game logic won't be compromised while gaming on the go: the game simulation itself will remain entirely consistent. The machine's embedded memory controller runs at 1600MHz while docked (on par with a standard Tegra X1), but the default power mode undocked sees this drop to 1331MHz. However, developers can opt to retain full memory bandwidth in their titles should they choose to do so.

As things stand, CPU clocks are halved compared to the standard Tegra X1, but it's the GPU aspect of the equation that will prove more controversial. Even while docked, Switch doesn't run at Tegra X1's full potential. Clock-speeds are locked here at 768MHz, considerably lower than the 1GHz found in Shield Android TV, but the big surprise from our perspective was the extent to which Nintendo has down-clocked the GPU to hit its thermal and battery life targets. That's not a typo: it really is 307.2MHz - meaning that in portable mode, Switch runs at exactly 40 per cent of the clock-speed of the fully docked device. Developers can choose to hobble Switch performance when plugged in to match the handheld profile should they so choose.

As things stand, a docked Switch features a GPU with 2.5x the power of the same unit running from battery. And while some questions surround the leaked specs above, any element of doubt surrounding these CPU and GPU clocks can be seemingly be discounted. Documentation supplied to developers along with the table above ends with this stark message: "The information in this table is the final specification for the combinations of performance configurations and performance modes that applications will be able to use at launch."

Given that the Switch has a 720p screen, this drop-off isn't as catastrophic as it might sound at first. Games run at 1080p on your TV when docked, so the console is pushing less pixels when in portable mode. Even so, one developer has told Eurogamer that the transition won't be entirely automatic from a dev perspective, and that studios will have to work on 720p and 1080p versions of their games to ensure things move smoothly - akin to the situation with the PS4 Pro, where 4K support has to be coded in for it to function.

While such figures are alarming, what remains to be seen is exactly how Nintendo has tinkered with Tegra to optimise performance, and how working closely with Nvidia has given Nintendo additional gains via means of a extra software layer and so on. As Eurogamer says, recent footage of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the Jimmy Fallon Show didn't give any cause for concern, and even with the GPU running at 40 percent power compared to the docked system, Switch should comfortably out-match the Wii U when it comes to performance - and that in itself is impressive when you consider the size of the machine.

However, if such a large gulf between docked and undocked performance exists, it calls in to question just how seamless the transition from home console to portable will be; if the experience takes a nosedive when you're using the Switch as a mobile platform, what incentive is there to do so? All of this remains to be seen of course, and like the rest of the industry we'll be going hands-on with the real deal in January and feeding back our findings. In the meantime, let us know what you make of this recent report by posting a comment below.